VANCOUVER - The head of a public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case defended the process Tuesday against allegations it's ignoring the voices of aboriginals, as a lawyer appointed to represent that community resigned and one of the few remaining First Nations groups left in the process pulled out.
Aboriginal activists have long dismissed the inquiry as a lopsided and favouring the police, and the latest departures suggest commissioner Wally Oppal has so far been unable to convince the First Nations community he's committed to listening to them.
The first to leave was Robyn Gervais, an independent lawyer appointed to advance the interests of the aboriginal community, who told Oppal on Tuesday morning that the hearings have been too heavily focused on police and not on the poor native women who overwhelmingly accounted for Pickton's victims.
That prompted the First Nations Summit, which represents many First Nations and tribal councils in British Columbia, to formally withdraw from the inquiry.
Oppal insisted he was committed to hearing the stories of the First Nations community and how aboriginals were treated by Vancouver police and the RCMP as they investigated Pickton and his involvement in the disappearance of Vancouver sex workers.
Still, Oppal argued it wasn't his role to delve into the centuries of abuse, poverty and neglect faced by Canada's aboriginals.
"The issues that you raise about poverty and colonization, those are all very valid concerns," Oppal said after Gervais explained her departure.
"Unfortunately, the focus of our commission of inquiry, contrary to the wishes of many people in the province, is not to get into those issues. ... Our focus here is on the police investigation."
Gervais was appointed last year after the provincial government rejected a request to provide legal funding for a number of advocacy groups, including several organizations representing aboriginals. Another lawyer was appointed to present the views of Downtown Eastside residents, including sex workers and drug addicts.
Those two lawyers weren't given specific clients but were told to solicit input from the groups that were denied funding. First Nations groups have largely boycotted the hearings, and Gervais has said she has received little support from the aboriginal community.
Gervais, who is Metis and previously represented the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, told Oppal the hearings have become dominated by evidence from police officers, while they have heard from only a handful of aboriginal witnesses.
She said that leaves Oppal unable to determine whether systemic racism against Pickton's victims played a part in the failure to catch the serial killer.
Gervais said those concerns were reinforced last month as she requested the inquiry hear from two panels of witnesses focusing on native issues.
She suggested one panel of witnesses from the Vancouver Police and Native Liaison Society, to be held over four days, and another featuring aboriginal residents from the Downtown Eastside to discuss their treatment by police, she said.
Gervais said she was told the native liaison panel could be scheduled in April, while the panel of aboriginal residents would have to wait until a less-formal study commission that will be held after the current round of hearings. She said she was led to believe the native liaison panel would only have one day, although a commission lawyer later insisted no time constraints were put on the panel.
"Given that these hearings are largely about missing and murdered aboriginal women, I didn't think I should fight to have their voices heard," Gervais told Oppal as her voice broke with emotion.
Oppal told Gervais that he would have accommodated any witness she suggested.
He said that he, too, was concerned about the ever-growing number of lawyers at the inquiry, but he said police agencies and officers accused of wrongdoing have a right to defend themselves.
Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit, who addressed the inquiry during its first week last October, said Gervais' resignation will make it even more difficult for the inquiry to determine why so many women were killed.
"In our view, it continues to reflect what we've said: there's a systemic pattern of discrimination," John told Oppal on Tuesday.
"We feel the inquiry will not fulfil a critical part of its mandate. ... First Nations and aboriginal peoples in this province really have had no way to put significant input into this process."
Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said it's clear the hearings won't adequately represent the voices of aboriginals."They have not yet finished the police witnesses, and there is virtually no time left for the credible participation of aboriginal voices, which is an absolute tragedy," Phillip said outside the hearing room.
Oppal's final report is due by June 30, and formal hearings are scheduled to finish by the end of April.
The inquiry was called to examine why police failed to catch Pickton as he murdered sex workers in the late 1990s and the early 2000s.